Editor’s Note: In June 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that coca cultivation decreased 5 percent in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in 2009. Contributing to the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor newsletter, Vanda Felbab-Brown offers insight into this trend with specific explanations relating to Colombian cultivation.

The downward trends in coca cultivation in Colombia are not surprising for several reasons.

First, there has been a considerable decrease in demand in the United States, most likely as a result of many long-term hardcore cocaine users becoming old. Second, many new and current users in the United States prefer prescription narcotics and methamphetamine to cocaine, though how robust and lasting this preference shift will prove remains to be seen. At the same time, demand for cocaine has vastly expanded in Europe and in many Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, many of whom are currently supplied more out of Peru and Bolivia than Colombia. Third, given the extraordinary intensity of eradication in Colombia, with the most intense and longest sustained aerial spraying in history, it should be expected that some level of suppression will take place.

The key question is how robust the gains in Colombia will prove to be. Since most cocaleros do not receive any assistance for switching to legal livelihoods and most are dependent on coca for basic livelihood and food security, the pressure for cultivation to rebound will be strong. It is thus both imperative and an opportune time to intensify and expand rural-livelihood efforts in Colombia.

A crucial start is for the new Colombian government to abandon the ‘zero-coca’ policy inherited from the Uribe administration, which conditions any aid on a community first eradicating all of its coca. Such a policy is not only ineffective, but deeply counterproductive.